The Academy Awards presentation has probably peaked for good; ratings have been down for several years now and the show isn’t even close to being the cultural touchstone it was during the 60s through 80s. There are multiple reasons for this, of course. The glamour of Hollywood has been hit hard by actors without the star power of the older generation and whom many you can see having sex on “stolen tapes” released on the internet. The internet and cable TV have pared down the potential audience. And, of course, there is the plain and simple fact that the Academy Awards seems downright stodgy compared to the MTV Movie Awards. Pretty soon the Academy Awards may have the audience of the very first banquet.
The very first Academy Awards banquet took place on May 16, 1929. The movies honored spanned films released in both 1927 and 1928. There was no suspense involved at all; the winners had been announced three months previously. Although most people know at least one of the two stories associated with how the Academy Award statuette earned its nickname Oscar, very few know that the awards were originally designed with two distinct and distinctly non-artistic purposes in mind. The idea of honoring movies as an art form was done in part because one of the many backlashes against sex and violence and the idea that Hollywood was corrupting the youth of America had raised its ugly head. The idea of the Academy Awards was created partly to stem the growing sense among the studios that censorship was about to imposed from without. Hollywood felt that honoring artistic achievement would add a little class to what was essentially a second-rate medium dominated by titillating films of the period, and by doing so would lend them a little cache to fend off the censorship army. The second reason behind the creation of the Academy Awards was even more capitalistic. The unions were acquiring far too much power and the head of MGM Studios hoped to create a union of studio chiefs to act in concert against the threat of union overlords. The idea was that unions had enough power to go up against a single studio, but if the studios acted in concert to stem this threat by acting as a unified whole the danger could be undone. The awards, therefore, was intended in great part to give the impression that the studios were as one, a brotherhood of the arts. In fact, they were really more of a brotherhood of commerce. It worked for awhile, but eventually the power of the unions, under the corruption of their leaders and their ties to organized crime, did in fact have a tremendously negative effect on the movie industry.
The first Academy Awards came long before TV and wasn’t even broadcast on the radio. The stars arrived to a banquet made up of such delicacies as lobster and filet of sole. When the winners were announced, they calmly ascended to claim their trophy and take their rightful place at the head table. No speeches, no film clips, and no Rob Lowe dancing around with Snow White. In fact, the only speaker that night was the man who would ten years later pick up his Oscar for producing Gone with the Wind, Darryl F. Zanuck. The only silent movie to ever win Best Picture picked up the big award that night, Wings. Such was the novelty of the Academy Awards that when 21 year old Best Actress winner Janet Gaynor was queried about the most exciting moment of the evening, her response had nothing to do with making history as the first recipient of the award, but rather that she had gotten to meet Douglas Fairbanks.